Growing Pains

A successful university student has a tough time learning who she is.

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Posted in , Mar 6, 2009

I stepped out of class into a gray October afternoon. Stone paths wound their way between the gothic halls of Princeton University, where I was a sophomore.

I walked slowly until I came to an intersection, two paths splitting. Like I had so many times before, I stopped. A painful, soul-draining decision faced me. One path led toward my dorm room, where I knew I should go and get started on my classwork. The other path led to where I wanted to go—down the hill past the tennis courts to the boathouse on the lapping shore of Lake Carnegie.

Just now, I knew, my crew teammates—or were they my ex-teammates?—were putting their long, slender competitive rowing boats into the water, climbing in, locking oars to gunwales and knifing through the glassy surface of the lake. I ached to join them. Why, God, I demanded, can’t I be out on that lake too?

In fact, I knew the answer to that question. Months before—it seemed a lifetime—I’d sat in a doctor’s office looking at an X ray of my spine. “See this?” the doctor had asked, pointing to a white smudge in my lower back. “This is why you’re in pain. You have an extra vertebra in your lower back. Most people have five lumbar vertebrae. You have six. That means the vertebra that normally fuses with your pelvis, supporting your back when you bend and lift, is in the wrong position. Every time you take a rowing stroke, you’re straining your back terribly. I’m sorry. I know it’s not what you want to hear.”

No, not what I wanted to hear at all. And not what I wanted to accept, either—that the new life I’d made for myself in college, the new athletic, admired, Ivy League person I’d worked so hard to turn myself into, was being wiped out by a little piece of bone.

If I wasn’t Beth the Princeton rower, who was I? Beth from suburban San Jose, California? Beth singing worship songs with the college fellowship group my hometown pastor had urged me to join? I didn’t want to be those Beths. I wanted to be the Beth I’d been dreaming of ever since I’d found out there was such a thing as the Ivy League.

I stared at the two diverging paths. Despite the doctor’s admonition, I’d refused to abandon rowing. I had seen physical therapists, chiropractors, back specialists. I’d tried exercises, bed rest and painkillers. The pain was still with me. It was worse than ever. But the alternative—giving up rowing, going back to being plain old Beth—was intolerable. I had to get back into that rowing boat.

I simply had to.

I remembered so clearly the day that I’d discovered rowing. I’d gone to  an activities fair one of my first afternoons on campus. Students buzzed around tables, promoting every kind of club and team. I wandered past the tables, dazed by the choices, even more dazed to be there in the first place. Princeton! For years I’d imagined this moment, the moment I would trade the subdivisions and strip malls of Cali­fornia for the ivy-covered, gothic-style buildings and blazing fall foliage of an East Coast university. Here, I thought, I would finally become my true self, the person I was always meant to be.

I signed up for a few things, including the fellowship group—though I had trouble imagining what kind of people spent Friday nights in college studying the Bible. I turned to go, not convinced I’d found what I was looking for. Just then a sandy-haired woman stopped me. She was wearing a striking black and orange jacket with PRINCETON CREW printed across the back. “Interested in rowing?” she asked, holding out a clipboard. “We’re having an informational meeting tomorrow.”

I knew zero about rowing. The idea of it, though, suddenly struck me—that was the kind of elite, Ivy League sport I craved. I looked again at her jacket. I wanted one of them too. I signed up.

“The top eight women will row in the first boat,” the coach announced at practice the following week. I’m going to be one of them, I decided. Soon my palms were calloused from gripping my oar. I spent hours every day on the water, on rowing machines, lifting weights, running. My teammates became my closest friends. The spring of my freshman year, my coach said, “Beth, I’m moving you up to the first boat.” Yes! I thought, convinced I was right where I needed to be.

Then a few weeks later I felt the first twinge in my lower back. Ignore it. It would go away. Every practice my back hurt more. One day I arrived at the boathouse so stiff, I couldn’t even get my oar into the water. My coach said the words I’d been dreading: “You need to go to the infirmary.”

I nodded when the doctor showed me the telltale X ray. The minute I left his office, though, I began planning my return to the water. There had to be a way to work around that extra vertebra. Surely this new life, this new identity I’d made for myself, wouldn’t be undone by some random physical limitation. I spent two weeks in bed, returned painfully to the boathouse and spent the rest of the season rowing in the second boat. I’ll recuperate over the summer, I vowed. By fall I’ll be back in the first boat.

All summer I saw doctors and physical therapists. I exercised. Stretched. Rested. I even reconnected with church, something I’d let slip at school. I went on a mission trip to Mexico with my hometown youth group—partly in hopes that God would reward me by taking my pain away. I returned to Princeton in the fall. My back hurt more than ever. I couldn’t even practice.

The only time I saw my teammates was when I was working the dinner shift in the dining hall. Each evening they came in, faces flushed from the exercise and the cold. At first they told me what I had missed that day out on the water. As the weeks went by, though, our conversations dropped off.

By October, that day I stepped out of class and stood on the split paths yearning to walk down to the boathouse, I was sure the team was starting to forget about me altogether.

Of course, my decision there at the intersection wasn’t really a decision. I couldn’t go to the boathouse. I could barely make it to class. I turned dejectedly toward my dorm and hobbled past the ivy-covered buildings that seemed more ghostly than real. Already I felt Ivy League Beth slipping away. I hated to admit it—a random physical limitation had wiped out everything I’d worked for. Why, God? Why?

I limped into my dorm room, set down my backpack—a relief—and, on impulse, climbed under my quilt. It was warm. I stared at the ceiling. Silence settled. I tried my question one more time. Why? Why was my life turning out this way? Didn’t God want me to become brand-new Beth? I held still, straining for an answer. Nothing. Well then, I asked, why was I made this way? Who was I supposed to be?

Yourself. The word was so commonplace, but it took me aback anyway.

What a strange answer. Of course I was myself—wasn’t I?

I looked around the room, at my books, my desk. Suddenly my eyes fell on my rowing jack­et. PRINCETON CREW. I looked at that jacket, thinking back to all the times I’d worn it. Brand-new Beth. Beth 2.0. Was that myself? Or was this myself, this woman lying under her quilt, with an extra vertebra, still a Princeton student, just not quite the kind of Princeton student I’d always assumed I had to be.

Myself. It was still my voice saying that word. But suddenly, in some strange way, I knew what God meant by it too. What had I been doing trying so hard to trade that Beth in for some shiny new version of my own devising? What was wrong with me just as I was? This time the inner voice was certain. Nothing.

The very next day I walked to the boathouse and told my coach I was leaving the team. It was mostly a formality, since we both knew I would likely never row again. Nonetheless, as I walked back up to campus under glorious autumn foliage, my heart felt lighter than it had in months. A few days later I noticed another change. My pain lessened. I was able to cut back on the number of pain pills I took and I could sit still for longer stretches. By the end of the week the pain in my back was almost completely gone.

You could call that a miracle. I think the explanation is more straightforward. Anyone who tries to do what she was never meant to do, or to be who she was never meant to be, is bound to encounter difficulty. Quitting rowing put me on a new—or was it old?—and wonderful path. I participated in that college fellowship group and made friendships I still cherish. I graduated Princeton, married and became a book editor in New York. I live the East Coast life I’d always dreamed of. Not one of my devising. Even better, the one I was meant to live.

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